Rhetorical Device Known as Syllepsis

uncle fester from the adam's family
(Paramount Pictures)

Syllepsis is a rhetorical term for a kind of ellipsis in which one word (usually a verb) is understood differently in relation to two or more other words, which it modifies or governs. Adjective: sylleptic.

As Bernard Dupriez points out in A Dictionary of Literary Devices (1991), "There is little agreement among rhetoricians on the difference between syllepsis and zeugma," and Brian Vickers notes that even the Oxford English Dictionary "confuses syllepsis and zeugma" (Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry, 1989). In contemporary rhetoric, the two terms are commonly used interchangeably to refer to a figure of speech in which the same word is applied to two others in different senses.

Etymology
From the Greek, "a taking"

Examples

  • E.B. White
    When I address Fred I never have to raise either my voice or my hopes.
  • Dave Barry
    We consumers like names that reflect what the company does. We know, for example, that International Business Machines makes business machines, and Ford Motors makes Fords, and Sara Lee makes us fat.
  • Anthony Lane
    Ana... first meets Christian Grey at Grey House, which is home to Grey Enterprises, in Seattle... Ana, ushered into his presence, stumbles first over the threshold and then over her words.
  • Robert Hutchinson
    Vegetarianism is harmless enough, though it is apt to fill a man with wind and self-righteousness.
  • Sue Townsend
    I searched for a sign that she had witnessed more of Mrs. Urquhart's scandalous behavior, but her face was its usual mask of Max Factor foundation and disappointment with life.
  • Charles Dickins
    Miss Bolo rose from the table considerably agitated, and went straight home in a flood of tears, and a sedan chair.
  • Ambrose Bierce
    Piano, n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.
  • James Thurber
    I finally told Ross, late in the summer, that I was losing weight, my grip, and possibly my mind.
  • Margaret Atwood
    You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.
  • Tyler Hilton
    You took my hand and breath away.
  • Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
    She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.
  • Dorothy Parker
    It's a small apartment. I've barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.

Observations

  • Maxwell Nurnberg
    Zeugma, syllepsis—even dictionaries and linguists find it difficult to agree on which is which. They agree only that what is generally involved is a verb (or some other part of speech) that is doing double duty. In one case there's a syntactical problem; in the other, a verb has two or more objects yoked together, objects that are not compatible, since for each the verb is used in a different sense; for example, He took his hat and his departure.
  • Kuang-ming Wu
    Significantly, zeugma or syllepsis is word-yoking often because it is meaning-yoking. In 'opening the door and heart to the homeless boy,' for instance, opening the heart opens the door, for it is the heart that opens or closes the door; to 'open' yokes the 'heart' inside with the 'door' outside. To 'open' performs a zeugma-activity. Or is it syllepsis? In any case, metaphor performs both functions . . .. Metaphor is a zeugma(-syllepsis) yoking two matters under one word (verb), yoking old and alien, past and future.

Pronunciation: si-LEP-sis